Thursday, February 01, 2018
Movie Review--The Hostiles
When it opens, a man is sawing a log for a new corral, creating a life for himself, his wife, and his children. She's in the cabin, home-schooling because the family is homesteading all alone in the middle of nowhere on the vast American frontier. They're a handsome bunch of dreamers.
And you know they're going to die. You just know. You don't want to watch because you know that very, very soon some evil riders in war paint will rise up out of nowhere and start butchering.
You know lots of things that happen in Hostiles long before they do. You know blood will be let, lots of it, in mad violence that will make you want to pull your jacket up before your eyes. You know there'll be a beautiful woman (Rosamond Pike) for some Marlboro man to woo, a guy who doesn't talk much more often than he shaves (Christian Bale). You know there will be a West that still holds immensity big enough to make us cower, wide-open spaces that run on forever beneath sunsets so spiritually rich you can see the Creator.
There'll be an Indian who's at least partly a noble savage. You'll know there'll be hatred and rough, bloody justice dealt by powerful men who live far outside the law. What you don't know is who is going to die and when; but you know there'll be death, and plenty of it.
Hostiles plays with the cliches that comprise that most American of genres, the Western. It dangles them in front of you like baby toys. It knows you're hunting cliches, so it serves them up deliciously, as if to make clear that you simply can't tell a brand new story when it comes to the U.S. Cavalry and the Indians. You can't run from Little Big Horn. You can add ginger or poppy-seed or sliced almonds, you can use corn meal if you'd like, or wheat flour; but what comes out of the oven eventually is always going to be bread.
The plot of Hostiles is a classically simple. Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), an "injun fighter," tough as granite, is by some miracle still alive after thirty years of frontier war, thirty years of watching his friends die, time and time again, in bloody ways that would remake just about anybody into an rowdy, clawing animal. Blocker hates Indians. Lord knows most of the U.S. Cavalry did, as did most white people in 1890.
Blocker's commanding officer--a good man, by the way--gives the Captain his last charge: take a Cheyenne headman named Yellow Hawk home to Montana. Captain Block stiffly refuses; but you know he will because that plot line is just too much a nest of hooks.
Blocker and Yellow Have a history and it's not pretty. We don't see it, but we hear the stories. The captain's hatred for Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, who is in just about every film about Native people!) is not arbitrary or old-fashioned bigotry. Blocker's seen horror done on his friends by Yellow Hawk's own knife, butchery he's neither forgiven or forgotten.
The story is a pilgrimage, a moral tale that ends in sacrament (like my new novel, I'm proud to add). It's a love story that begins to suggest itself only when we can't help thinking the two of them really need each other simply to get along, to live.
And there are moments that aren't cliched. That woman's searing anguish is given all kinds of time, her vengeance is given vent in ways that might surprise you. There's violence all around, but its perpetrators aren't simply the red men. In Hostiles the savagery is systemic. White trappers and fat cat ranchers--not to mention the cavalry itself--aren't one bit morally superior to those rapacious Comanches whose savagery wipes out that frontier family.
One of my favorite moments came after the fact. Two of those Comanches are killed, one of them lynched. Blocker and his bunch find their mutilated bodies in the morning. When they're by themselves, Blocker tells his oldest friend that he shouldn't have fallen asleep on the watch the night before. The guy hadn't. You don't see it happen, but that old sidekick and the Cheyenne took revenge.
Hostiles begins with a quote from D. H. Lawrence, who claimed, long ago, that America had never really come to grips with its great sins, like slavery. The result? “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." That line appears against a black screen before you see the man sawing logs. The movie's marketing puts the title in a sentence: "we are all Hostiles."
Don't be fooled. We may be, but we're not without hope. Hostiles is a story about redemption. For better or for worse, it is an American epic, it's a Western, it's about learning to get along.
Hostiles is not for everyone, but I loved it.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:40 AM